Heidelberg 33: God’s Eternally And Only Begotten Son And His Adopted Sons (2)

In part 1 we took a quick trip through the fundamentals of Christology: one person, two natures. Any doctrine of Christ that confuses the two natures (Eutychianism) or that makes them into two persons (Nestorianism) is heresy. It denies fundamental, biblical, catholic truth and is to be heartily rejected by all Christians. According to our understanding of the teaching of Scripture God the Son has always been the Son. He has been the Son from eternity. There has been considerable debate, however, over how we should express this truth. At least since the Nicene Constantinoplitan (381 AD) Creed, i.e., the Nicene Creed with the revisions made at Constantinople, we have often spoken of the Son as “eternally begotten.”

This seems to be the implication of John 1:1–3 and 1:14. In the prologue to John’s gospel we read:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things were created through him and nothing was created without him.

According to John, God the Son is the Logos (λογος), the eternal, pre-existent Son. Of course “beginning” is a reference to Genesis 1. “In the beginning Elohim….” John is saying that Elohim is tri-personal and the Second Person, through whom all things came into being, is the Word. Just as Elohim is, the Word, God the Son is. Elohim is not becoming. Elohim is not adopted and neither is the Word. When we read, in Genesis 1, “And Elohim said, we’re to think of the Word—not that the Word was an expression of the Father but that creation was executed through the God the Son, the Word, and by the one God in three persons.

The eternal relation between the Father and the Son is clarified in vs. 18, “the only begotten God (μονογενὴς θεὸς), who is at the side of the Father, he has revealed him.” There is a personal distinction between the Father and the Son. Both are God but the Father is unbegotten. The Son is begotten. Some copies of this passage say, “only begotten Son” but that was probably an attempt by copyists to smooth out what seemed to them a great difficulty. What does it mean to say “only begotten God”? Indeed. What does it mean? It is a great mystery but it is a glorious truth. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and they have a relationship to one another that transcends our ability to explain. Any God we could explain comprehensively would be an idol!

The fathers at the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381) confessed that God the Son was “begotten of the Father from eternity.”1 At Constantinople we also added the language of the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father (and at 3rd Council of Toledo [Spain], in 589, the West would add the expression, “and the Son” [filioque] to indicate that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son). Athanasius (296–373) inferred that just as the Spirit is eternally and actively proceeding, so the Son is actively and eternally begotten of the Father.

Kevin Giles explains:

Athanasius held that the eternal begetting of the Son and its counterpart, the eternal procession of the Spirit, spoke of two necessary” acts of divine self-differentiation ad intra (within the life of God in eternity).’ These acts produce nothing exterior to God. Augustine added to this insight by clearly distinguishing between what takes place in eternity and what takes place in history. He thus differentiated between the “mission” (sending) of the Son and the Spirit for the works of creation and redemption, divine acts ad extra (acts of God “outside” of the divine life, in space and time), and the eternal begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit in eternity ad intra (within the life of God).2

The Son has always been the Son and always begotten. That begetting never started and it has never stopped.

This way of thinking of speaking influenced the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), in which we say: “begotten according to the deity from eternity of the Father” and it is in light of this expression that we understand the use of “only begotten” (μονογενῆ) in the Definition.3

The Athanasian Creed (7th century) was not actually written by Athanasius, of course, but it was a Western attempt to summarize the orthodox Trinitarian faith. In it we confess: “The Son is of the Father alone, neither made, nor created but begotten.”4 In other words, we are not Arians. We are not subordinationists. The Son has a unique relation to the Father and that relation is eternal. The Son is not merely like the Father, though he is the image of the Father. He is, as we confess in the Athanasian:

God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds…Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead

Must we therefore set his eternal generation against the Son being God also “of himself,” as Calvin said? More on this in the next post.

Reformed Confessions

The Reformed Churches confess that the Son was eternally begotten. In Belgic Confession Art 10 we say:

We believe that Jesus Christ according to his divine nature is the only begotten Son of God, begotten from eternity, not made, nor created (for then he would be a creature), but co-essential and co-eternal with the Father, the very image of his substance and the effulgence of his glory, equal to Him in all things. He is the Son of God, not only from the time that he assumed our nature but from all eternity,

This language and way of thinking is similar to Heidelberg Catechism 33.  In the catechism we say:

33. Why is He called God’s “only begotten Son, since we also are the children of God?

Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God; but we are children of God by adoption, through grace, for His sake.

God the Son is the natural Son, i.e., according to his divine nature. He is the eternal Son. The principal authors and editors of the catechism wrote frequently that the Son was “begotten from eternity” (genitus ab aeterno). We can be confident that the catechism means to teach that the Son was eternally begotten since its principal author and  authorized commentator, Zacharias Ursinus says (on HC 25):

So in like manner the eternal Father hath by eternal generation communicated to the Son his essence, but not his person—that is, he begot not the Father, but the Son; neither is the Father the Son, or the Son the Father, although each is very God. Yet, although there is this resemblance, there is at the same time a great difference in the manner in which the divine essence, being infinite, and the human, being created and finite are communicated to another, which difference is to be carefully observed; for, first, in men, in the father and the son, the essence is as distinct as the persons themselves—the father and the son are not only two persons, but also two men distinct in essence. But in God, the persons are distinct, whilst the essence remains common, and the same; and therefore, there are not three Gods, but the Son is the same God in number which is the Father and the Son. Secondly, in persons created, he that begets doth not communicate his whole essence to him that is begotten, for then he should cease to be a man, but only a part is made over to him that is begotten, and made the essence of another individual distinct from him who begets. But in uncreated persons, he that begets or inspires, communicates his whole essence to him that is begotten, or that proceeds; yet so that he who communicates, retains the same and that whole. The reason of both differences is, that the essence of man is finite and divisible, whilst that of the Deity is infinite and indivisible. Wherefore, the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, constitute the one true God; and yet the Father is not the Son, or the Holy Ghost; neither is the Holy Ghost the Son; that is, they are one God—not three Gods, but three persons subsisting in one Godhead.

The Westminster Divines, in Westminster Confession 2.3 were explicit in their use of this language:

3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

There are some challenges associated with this way of speaking however and we’ll consider them in more detail next time.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων…

2. Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Kindle Locations 162-166). Kindle Edition.

3. πρὸ αἰώνων μὲν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς γεννηθέντα κατὰ τὴν θεότητα

4. Filius a Patre solo est: non factus, nec creatus: sed genitus.

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  1. John Murray—–Students of historical theology are acquainted with the furor which Calvin’s insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to His deity aroused at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was too much of a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implication of the homoousion clause of the Nicene creed to be willing to accede to the interpretation which the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon another expression in the same creed, namely, “very God of very God.” No doubt this expression is repeated by orthodox people without any thought of suggesting what the evidence derived from the writings of the Nicene fathers would indicate the content to have been. This evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the son DERIVED His deity from the Father and that the Son was not, therefore, “autotheos.” It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with such vigor. He maintained that, as respects personal distinction, the Son was of the Father but, as respects deity, He was self-existent. This position ran counter to the Nicene tradition. Hence, the indictments levelled against him. It is, however, to the credit of Calvin that he did not allow his own more sober thinking to be suppressed out of deference to an established pattern of thought when the latter did not commend itself by conformity to Scripture and was inimical to Christ’s divine identity.

    Murray quoted in Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), p. 330.

    • Mark: Thanks for this quote from John Murray. I wish some Reformed folks would think seriously about the last sentence you quoted. Calvin was right, so, if Ursinus wants to say that the Father communicates His essence to the Son, he’s wrong about that. You’re not allowed to take away the Son’s self-existence in order to make eternal “generation” work. Just because a line of thought is traditional (sometimes for many centuries) doesn’t necessarily automatically mean it’s correct. Always reforming – even if it means that some guy in a toga turns out to have been wrong.

  2. Reymond quotes Murray, who relied on Warfield, who followed Charles Hodge. The whole is very shaky historical theology, since they all misrepresented Calvin. Calvin clearly stated that the Son was begotten of the substance of the Father, a thoroughly Nicene statement, and a point brought out at length in the discussions of the Westminster Assembly. And there is Calvin’s own writing, of course, in his Catechism:

    Quod filii Dei sumus, non id habemus a natura, sed adoptione et gratia duntaxat: quod scilicet nos eo loc habeat Deus. At Dominus Iesus, qui ex substantia Patris est genitus, uniusque cum Patre essentiae est, optimo iure Filius Dei unicum vocatur: quum solus sit natura.

    Ce que nous sommes enfants de Dieu, ce n’est pas de nature, mais seulement par adoption et par grâce, en tant que Dieu nous veut réputer tels. Mais le Seigneur Jésus, qui est engendré de la substance de son Père et est d’une même essence, à bon droit est dit Fils unique

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